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Irish in America

Although some Irish had immigrated to the United States during the colonial period, the largest influx came between 1840 and 1920.  The Irish Immigration consisted largely of economic and political refugees, fleeing the harsh conditions of their homeland in hope of finding a better way of life in America.  As Catholics, they did not easily fit into predominately Protestant society, however, and they initially experienced a great deal of prejudice from Anglo-Saxon bias carried into American culture. Nonetheless, the Irish gradually prospered in American society, assuming positions of leadership in fields such as trade unions, politics, the military, and education.  As a group, the Irish were responsible for introducing and fostering many aspects of American culture that are now taken for granted, such as the ward system of urban politics.

Irish in America

The Irish potato famine of 1845-1848 launched a major wave of Irish Catholic immigration. The hardships of hunger and disease endured by many of these immigrants during the Atlantic crossing were so devastating that the vessels they came in were called “coffin ships.” Some ports of entry such as Boston often turned such ships away, fearing that the new arrivals would spread cholera and other diseases throughout the city. During the famine in Ireland, the primary ports of entry for the Irish were Boston, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans, which still have a heavily Irish-American populations. Large numbers of Irish also settled in Chicago and San Francisco.

Popular opinion regarded Irish émigrés as ignorant and prone to superstition. The dominant Protestant religion of the nation was suspicious of the increasing number of Irish Catholics, and feared that the Irish-Catholic vote would eventually lead to the introduction of laws based on religion.  In 1844, anti-Irish riots broke out in Philadelphia and New York.  The bias was fueled by widespread press coverage of the of a large number of Irish soldiers during the Mexican American War who defected from the American army to form the San Patricio Battalion of the Mexican army. By the early 1850s, the anti-Irish sentiment was one of the main forces behind the nativist political movement, which became known as the “Know Nothing Party.”

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